The Time I Won


LORNA SLOCOMBE does her sailing on the Charles River, not far from her home in Cambridge. Several of her articles have appeared in these pages in recent years.

JOINING a sailing club for relaxation was a disastrous idea. It was fine at first. Every nice day found me in the sun and fresh air, sailing and loafing. I got tanned and healthy and began to feel amiable. Then one day I came out on the dock and found George, the club’s handsome young manager, sitting on a bench, steeped in gloom. He explained that he had been declared ineligible to compete in the forthcoming Club Regatta because he was an employee.

“Oh, that’s all right,” I said soothingly. “I’ll enter the Regatta as a skipper, and you can be my crow.” I’d watched the boat races, and a pretty sight they were on a summer’s day. There was quite a bit of yelling among the skippers after each race, but I’d paid no attention to that.

George looked surprised at my offer, and then suddenly thoughtful. “All right,” he said.

Later, I discovered that crews and skippers team up with slightly more care than is usually shown in picking mates for life. George is one of the best sailors around, and his decision to crew for me created a sensation. The mystery was soon cleared up. My impulsive invitation held a challenge. As crew, he could legally do everything but handle the tiller which steers the boat. He could not compete for the trophy, but given a completely green skipper, he had a chance to see how effective he could be as crew.

George set to work to make a racing skipper out of me. first he gave me a copy of the rules to take home. It seems that when sixteen boats all try to get around the same tin can at the same time, they must do it according to a set of rules that make Canasta look like Parcheesi. I was feeling relaxed after a day in the sun as I stretched out on the couch and began to read. I was pleased to discover that even dinghies are referred to as “yachts.” I was going to take part in a yacht race.

I went on to read: “A leading yacht cannot claim the right to tack under this rule if the other yacht is clear astern and to windward,and the yachts are beating to windward and are about to tack for or around a mark or obstruction. In either case, the leading yacht in tacking is subject to Rule 5 and thereafter to Rule 1.” At this point I tacked to the phone and called George and told him I’d changed my mind.

“Now don’t worry,” he said.

Don’t worry! Now that I was entered in a Regatta, the whole subject of racing came into focus, and I was appalled. On a quiet day, while ordinary sailors lolled happily in their boats, the racing skippers would be sweating, staring in agonized concentration at every wrinkle in their drooping sails, inching forward or back to shift weight, lying flat on the floor boards, holding the tiller with their toes — anything to get the boat to move a little faster. And what did the winner of a race get for being first? A quarter of a point. It was definitely the sport of maniacs.

Or take a difference of opinion over the rules. After the race a protest meeting is held, just like a court trial, and accusers, defenders, and witnesses are called. The arguments of the “sea lawyers” are loud and long. I have seen one man get so excited that he picked up another bodily, carried him out to the dock, and tossed him into a sailboat shouting, “I’ll show you who had Mast Abeam! ”

The morning of our Regatta, as I faced my first plunge into this fierce competition, I quailed. I didn’t feel well and I told George so. It turned out I wasn’t supposed to: I was supposed to be nervous like a high-strung race horse. Trying to feel like Seabiscuit, I began to rig the boat. George was looking grim, too. “ Don’t be surprised if I don’t speak to you out there,” he said. “When I’m racing, I don’t talk.”

I was glad to have some warning.

From the moment the first race began, George was a different person, He crouched like a wild creature in the bow, staring malignantly around at our competitors. He spoke only to give directions, and he uttered those in a low, fierce voice. “Now pass the next boat to windward,” and when I moved the tiller, “Don’t be so obvious about it!”

Desperately I concentrated on my job as helmsman, staring at the sail till my neck ached. The thought occurred to me that if I weren’t racing,

I could be enjoying a nice sail. This traitorous reverie was interrupted by George saying accusingly, “You’re pinching. Bear off.” I set my sail — and my neck — and got back to work.

As soon as one race was done we all jumped back into our boats and started another. A Regatta, it turned out, goes on all day. By the end of the sixth race, I was too lame to move, too tense to eat. My knees would obviously never be the same. When George told me we’d taken second, I was too tired to care. Yet even in that condition, when I looked at my total score, I felt proud when I saw the quarter points. I should have suspected then what had happened to me.

But still I didn’t catch on. I thought I was entering the next Sunday morning race simply because it was informal and without crews. It seemed only sporting to race once entirely on my own, and give the other skippers a chance to beat me. I had it coming to me. So the next Sunday I was on hand, nervous but ready, at the starting line.

Off the boats set at the signal before a gentle wind. I found myself shaking with excitement and staring fiercely around the river. Everything was all right up to the mark. At that point I made a wild jibe around the can, and every piece of line necessary to sailing the boat somehow wound itself around my neck. I forgot all about racing. If there was a sudden puff of wind, I would be strangled. I let go the tiller and fought my way out of the entangling lines. I got them off my neck only to find them all fouled up on the tiller. I got them off the tiller.

Then I looked around.

The other boats were way off ahead, toward the shore, and I was alone in the middle of the river. Feeling sad and foolish, I headed back for the finish line. What a racing skipper! I couldn’t even sail a boat.

Then a strange thing happened. From out of nowhere, a fine isolated puff of breeze came blowing right up the middle of the river. It picked up my sail and the boat took off. The other boats were left sitting there, becalmed, while I sailed grandly across the finish line, winner by fifty boat lengths.

That did it. I haven’t won a race since, and maybe I never will. But visions of quarter points dance in my head. I’ve skinned knees and shins, yelled myself hoarse over the rules. At the end of the day, on the way home, I find myself trying to establish overlaps on cars that are paying no attention to the rules of the North American Yachting Association. For recreational reading, I plow through manuals with arrows showing how wind bounces off a sail.

My legs ache, my digestion is in a dubious state, and I have added insomnia to my troubles. At night I go over all the races, figuring how I could have passed another boat if I’d pulled in my sail an inch. I feel cross, tired, and irritable. I am beginning to wonder if it wouldn’t be better for me to get out of the sunshine and fresh air, and back to my desk.